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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Before this N.F.L. season began, the Buffalo Bills set a goal of winning a Super Bowl. While that is an objective shared by all teams, it was both realistic and pressing for the Bills, who believed this season’s squad had as good a chance as ever to finally deliver a championship to this region.
The Bills held fast to that mission through a brief midseason slump, long-term injuries to Micah Hyde and Von Miller and then Damar Hamlin’s life-threatening medical emergency during a prime-time game in early January. But on Sunday, the Bills found themselves back in a familiar place: waiting until next year.
Under a steady snowfall, the Bills’ season ended with a 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who will challenge Kansas City in next weekend’s A.F.C. championship game.
“Obviously we wanted to play for him and continue our mission,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen said, referring to Hamlin, who was in attendance at Sunday’s game. “We just ran into a team that played better than us tonight.”
The Bills struggled to slow Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ offense, while Allen couldn’t seem to get the offense into a rhythm. The Bengals were down three starters on their offensive line, but it was Allen who often found himself on the run, scrambling to make plays out of scheme.
The last time these two teams were on the field together, on Jan. 2, Hamlin went into cardiac arrest after making what appeared to be a routine tackle of receiver Tee Higgins. That game was suspended in the first quarter and ultimately canceled. Since then, the Bills tried to push forward, drawing strength from the steady progress of Hamlin, who was released from the hospital on Jan. 11 and made his first public appearance Sunday.
Hamlin visited the Bills’ locker room before the game and then watched from a suite as he continues what doctors have said will be a lengthy recovery. At the two-minute mark of the first half, the stadium Jumbotron showed Hamlin. He cupped his hands into a heart symbol, then urged the crowd to cheer the defense, which was defending Burrow on the goal line.
The defense held on that series — after a Ja’Marr Chase touchdown catch was overturned on review — but that was just one of a few potential turning points for the Bills that never materialized.
“There was no real energy, juice, no momentum,” said Matt Milano, the Bills’ All-Pro linebacker.
The Bengals built a 14-point lead in the first quarter on two touchdown passes from Burrow to wide-open targets — Chase on the first for 28 yards and tight end Hayden Hurst on the second for 15. Burrow didn’t throw an incomplete pass on the Bengals’ first two drives. The Bills, meanwhile, opened with two three-and-out series.
The Bills finally stopped the Bengals on their third possession, when Milano sacked Burrow on third down near midfield. When the Bills got the ball back, they marched to the end zone on a 15-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by an Allen touchdown run on a 1-yard quarterback sneak.
After the Bengals’ field goal just inside the two-minute warning of the first half pushed Cincinnati’s lead to 17-7, the Bills pulled back to within a score early in the second half on a 25-yard field goal from Tyler Bass. But from that point on, it was all Bengals, who all game sustained the momentum that eluded the Bills’ offense. Allen’s second-quarter touchdown run was the only time the Bills got into the end zone.
The Bills will look back on some missed opportunities. There was Allen’s well-thrown deep shot, which traveled more than 30 yards in the air, on a third down in the final seconds of the third quarter. But Bills receiver Gabe Davis couldn’t quite hold on to it. Later, midway through the fourth quarter and after Cincinnati had grown its advantage to 27-10, a Bills drive stalled deep in Bengals’ territory. They incurred a false start penalty that extended a third down, then failed to convert a fourth down from Cincinnati’s 16-yard line. Stefon Diggs could be seen shouting at the quarterback on the sideline as Allen studied plays on the bench.
Diggs, the team’s top receiver, briefly left the game after Allen overthrew him in the end zone, leading to a collision with a photographer. He returned for the next series and finished with four catches for 35 yards on 10 targets.
“He’s a fiery competitor,” Allen said of Diggs. “He wants the ball, and whatever it was that we couldn’t get him the ball tonight, we’re going to have to learn from.”
With about one minute left in the game, and with the Bills trailing by 17, Allen threw an interception to Bengals cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. Bills fans booed and headed toward the exits, while Bengals fans went the other way, descending the stadium stairs to cheer on their team’s return to the conference championship. After it was over, Allen lingered in his locker stall as his teammates left the stadium, not removing his uniform until more than a half-hour after the game ended.
The game could have been a preview of what the A.F.C. will look like for years to come: Allen and Burrow dueling for a chance to play Patrick Mahomes in the conference championship game. But the Bills have so far not been able to get past the conference’s giants during the postseason. Their last two seasons ended at the hands of Mahomes and Kansas City. This year, Burrow and the Bengals ended the Bills’ Super Bowl dream.
The loss will have to be a learning opportunity for the future, Bills Coach Sean McDermott said. But in the present, it was an unsatisfactory ending for a team that over the last few weeks had found ways to keep pushing forward.
“Barriers were broken with this group in regards to being vulnerable,” said Bills center Mitch Morse. “It definitely stings a little bit more knowing that this particular group went through so much and this chapter is closed.”